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Born: 121, Rome, Italy

Died: 180, on the battlefront in Eastern Europe, the exact location unknown

Major Work: Meditations

Major Ideas

The universe is governed by reason, which is God.

In a rational universe everything that happens is not only necessitated but good.

Human happiness consists in a life lived in accordance with nature and reason.

Though his actions are necessitated, an individual becomes free by acting rationally.

The bad acts of others do not harm us; rather we are harmed by our own opinions about those acts.

All rational beings are subject to natural law and so are citizens of a world community.

The rational individual should have no fear of death because it is a natural event of life.

Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher. To understand his philosophy, therefore, it is necessary to have some background in Stoic thought. Stoicism was one of the major philosophical schools during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Although it had its roots in earlier thinkers-particularly Heraclitus and Socrates-it originated as a distinct philosophy around 300 B.C. when a man by the name of Zeno (c. 336-264 B.C.) arrived in Athens from his native Cyprus and began teaching in the Stoa, or covered marketplace.

Zeno and his successors developed a total system of philosophy, including an epistemology, a metaphysics, a logic, an ethics, a political philosophy, and a philosophy of religion. At the heart of this system was a metaphysical materialism that, although not so intellectually sophisticated as the atomism of Democritus allowed the Stoics nevertheless to describe the universe as a purely natural entity functioning according to law and also to find ontological room for God Though this combination may not have been completely viable logically, it provided them the framework around which they constructed their entire philosophy.

Stoicism came to Rome soon after Roman arms had subjugated the Greeks, around the middle of the second century B.C. It attained its dominant influence over Roman intellectual life in the early period: of the empire The two most important Roman Stoics were Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), emperor, and Epictetus (c. A.D. 50-c. 125), slave.

Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome of a wealthy patrician family. He was educated at home and while still a young boy came under the influence of a teacher who was a Stoic. Marcus embraced the philosophy and remained its disciple throughout his life. His unusual abilities were soon recognized and the reigning emperor, Antoninus Pius, believing that he did not have many years to live, adopted Marcus, who was his nephew, gave him the family name of Antoninus, and began to groom him to take over the reins of state on his own death. However, Antoninus actually lived for several more years, so it was only in 161 that Marcus succeeded him.

The nineteen years of Marcus's reign were difficult ones for the empire. There were major natural disasters, a plague from the East came and decimated the population, and there was constant warfare, mainly against barbaric tribes who kept threatening the borders of Roman territory, particularly along the Danube River in Eastern Europe. Marcus spent nearly half of his reign on the front lines with his soldiers and parts of his Meditations were written in his tent, probably at night while the rest of his army was asleep. The constant strain and the rigors of military life finally broke his health and Marcus died in his fifty-ninth year, while campaigning on the frontier, somewhere in the vicinity of modern Vienna.


The Meditations is not a standard philosophical treatise. Rather, it can perhaps be described best as a combination of intellectual memoir and a series of admonitions addressed by the author to himself on how he should conduct himself not only in his daily affairs but also in his life as a whole. Indeed, the title that Marcus himself gave to his work was not Meditations but rather a Greek phrase that can be translated as "thoughts addressed to oneself." Because it was addressed to himself and presumably never meant for public consumption, the Meditations lacks the finish of a formal philosophical work. It is fragmented in its thought, unduly repetitious, and highly personal in tone. As a result it is difficult sometimes to extract the author's views from the text or to follow the line of argument that leads him to a particular conclusion. Nevertheless, the Meditations contains a philosophy, which is Marcus's version of Stoicism.

Perhaps because of their more practical approach to life, the Roman Stoics did not concentrate their attention on the abstruse problems of logic and metaphysics to the extent that their Greek predecessors had done. Rather they tended to take over this basic framework pretty much as it had come to them and to devote themselves to the ethical and social side of the Stoic philosophy. This is certainly true of Marcus, as it had been for Epictetus in the preceding century. In the case of Marcus, however, one addition needs to be made. He was also very much concerned with religion, and the Meditations is liberally sprinkled with passages that emphasize the theological aspects of Stoic ontology.

To comprehend Marcus's version of Stoicism in its entirety, it is necessary to begin with his metaphysics. Here he was generally orthodox: The universe is a material entity, composed of four basic elements. Everything that happens is necessitated, hence there is no room for chance. Another way of putting this, and one that Marcus emphasized, is to say that the universe is governed by law, or that the order of things is the revelation of reason. This, he believed, implies a rational lawgiver who governs the universe, or God. Marcus did not, however, conceive of God as a transcendent being having a personal relationship with humans, as does the Judeo-Christian tradition. Rather, God, for him, is simply the indwelling reason that orders the course of universal history. Because the universe is throughout rational, Marcus concluded, it is also good. Therefore, to think that anything that occurs in the natural order of things is bad is a fundamental mistake. We have, thus, at the center of Marcus's thinking a form of cosmic optimism.

The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius

Many, but not all, of Marcus's ethical conclusions follow directly from his metaphysics and theology. Perhaps the most important of these is his admonition, which he reiterates throughout the Meditations, to keep one's will in harmony with nature. This is the famous Stoic doctrine of acceptance. The doctrine of acceptance operates on two levels. The first relates to the occurrences of everyday life. When someone treats you badly, Marcus advised, you should accept the ill treatment because it cannot harm you if you do not let it do so. This view is similar to, but not quite the same as, the Christian admonition to "turn the other cheek." When Jesus said of his tormentors, "Forgive them for they know not what they do," his statement was one that Marcus could have accepted in part. Like Jesus, he believed that people who engaged in wrongful acts did so in ignorance; like him, as well, he maintained that their doing so should not be attributed to some viciousness of their character. Rather they did what they thou ght to be the right thing and so erred only in their judgment. But, unlike Jesus, Marcus did not stress the importance of forgiveness. Instead he concentrated on the inner response of the victim of wrongdoing, emphasizing that no harm could come to him against his will. Whatever might happen to his possessions and even to his body, he, in his inner and true self, would remain unscathed as long as he refused to acknowledge that the harm had affected him.

The second aspect of the doctrine of acceptance concerns the individual's life and place in the world. It seems clear from the Meditations that Marcus did not relish his exalted role as Roman emperor. He would almost surely have preferred to spend his life as a teacher and scholar. But it was his destiny to be emperor just as it was that of Epictetus to be a slave. Therefore, it was his duty to accept his post in life and perform the functions required by it to the best of his abilities

The concept of destiny raised a problem for Stoic philosophy. If as Marcus acknowledges, the universe is governed by reason and, therefore, everything that happens is determined to occur just as it does occur, can there be any possibility of human freedom? Marcus resolves this problem by drawing a distinction If one means by freedom making choices between open alternatives, this clearly cannot exist But there is another meaning of freedom: to accept whatever happens as being a part of a benign world order and to respond to events in a rational rather than an emotional manner. The individual who lives in this way, Marcus contends, is the truly free person. Not only is such a person free but he or she is living the good life as well. Since the rationality of. the universe is the foundation for its goodness, whatever happens in the universe must contribute to that goodness. Thus the rational person, in the acceptance of events, is not only responding to an external goodness but making a personal contribution to the value of the whole.

The Stoic conception of reason as the governor of the universe is ambiguous, and this ambiguity is repeatedly revealed in the Meditations. On the one hand, reason refers simply to the fact that the universe, which is totally material, operates according to inviolable law. On the other hand, reason is construed as universal intelligence, which suggests a mind. This concept introduces the notion of God. It is clear that Marcus was in some sense a theist, for he repeatedly speaks of God in a way that implies the existence of a cosmic intelligence that is good. So we are left with a basic problem of theology: How could he reconcile his materialism with his theism?

Another theological issue to which Marcus devotes many passages concerns death and immortality. For the rational human being, death is nothing to be feared. Since death is an event of nature, it cannot be bad; on the contrary, it shares in the goodness of every natural event. At death we simply cease to exist. There is nothing any more negative about the ages we shall spend in nonbeing after our death than there was in the ages we spent in similar nonbeing before we were born. Yet this is not the full story. Marcus accepted the Stoic theory of immortality. According to this view, cosmic history is not linear but cyclical. (This doctrine is often called "eternal recurrence.") After aeons the universe will come to the end of its present epoch and lapse into a state of primordial fire. From this fire a new universe will emerge, which will repeat the history of the present universe. And so on, ad infinitum. Hence we shall live again the same lives that we are living now.

This life, though it has its intensely personal side, is nevertheless primarily a social life. Each of us lives in a particular society and is governed by its laws. But as rational beings we are also governed by a higher law-the law of nature. This law applies to each of us, whatever the particular society to which we belong may be. Under the law of nature we are all equals, whether we be an emperor, a slave, or anything else. Thus we can say that, as rational beings, all human beings are members of one society operating under the ame set of laws. As Marcus proclaimed in his famous declaration: "My city and my country, as I am Antoninus, is Rome; as I am a man, it is the world" (Meditations, book VI, section 44).

It has often been said that the "pagan" world produced two "saints." The first is Socrates. The second is Marcus Aurelius. The claim of Marcus to our enduring memory and respect is due not so much to the ethical content of the Meditations, lofty as that undoubtedly is, but even more to the fact that Marcus himself successfully modeled his life, often under the most trying circumstances, on the precepts contained in his little book of "thoughts to himself."

Further Reading

Arnold, E. V. Roman Stoicism. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1911. This is a standard text devoted to the thought of the Roman Stoics. It includes a substantial discussion of the philosophy of Marcus.

Blanshard, Brand. Four Reasonable Men. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1984. Chap. 1. In this highly readable account, the author, an eminent American philosopher, describes the life and thought of Marcus as the embodiment of reason.

Rist, J. M. The Stoics. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1978. This book contains a number of essays by scholars from various countries who are devoted to different aspects of Stoic philosophy.

Zeller, Eduard. The Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics. Translated by 0. J. Reichel. New ed. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962. This is a classic work on the main philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period, written by a nineteenth-century German scholar. Part 2 is devoted to the Stoics.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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